Budget 2019: Will India’s First Woman Finance Minister Renew Her Gender Budgeting Push? 

India’s first full-time woman finance minister may want to focus on gender equality.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. (Source: BloombergQuint)
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. (Source: BloombergQuint)

When Nirmala Sitharaman takes the floor to present her maiden Union budget on July 5, she will be expected to introduce reforms to revive a sagging economy. But there’s one more area where India’s first full-time woman finance minister may want to focus on: gender equality.

India's gender budget—a tool to promote gender equality using budgetary allocations as an entry point for gender-sensitive policies—has largely remained unchanged as a share of expenditure budget. And while spending on gender equality hasn’t increased proportionately with the country's budget, there also remain gaps in the utilisation of those funds and implementation of policies.

Over the past decade, the gender budget as a percentage of the total expenditure has declined to 3.87 percent from 5.5 percent, according to an analysis of budget documents. The size of the gender budget has also remained less than one percent of the gross domestic product.

Ensuring gender parity has benefits for the economy, too. India can add about $770 billion to its GDP by 2025—18 percent higher than projected—just by taking steps to address gender inequality in the workforce and society, according to McKinsey Global Institute.

Gender equality, a fundamental human right, is one of the sustainable development goals that India has pledged to achieve by 2030. Despite numerous efforts India remains one of the worst countries for gender equality. The country which still grapples with skewed preference for a male child, is ranked 108 on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report.

Women’s participation in the labour force in India—at one woman for three men—is only better than nine countries, according to World Bank data. And recent government estimates show that too is declining.

There is also severe disparity in the pay. With no legislation mandating equal pay, women in India earn an average of Rs 5,400 per month compared with Rs 8,100 a month for men, according to WEF. That’s despite working roughly at least an hour more than men, albeit, much of it being unpaid work.

Besides, they get fewer opportunities in leadership roles. Only one in every eight board members of a publicly traded company in India is a woman. And only a tenth of the companies have female top managers or co-owners.

Amid this, the need for a effective gender budgeting is clearly evident.

A gender budget is a practice where governments provide a comprehensive statement of the government’s social and economic plans aimed at bridging the gender gap. A concept that was proposed in the mid-1990s, it was adopted by India in its 2005-06 budget and has since been a constant feature.

Sitharaman herself was part of the commission spearheading the adoption of gender responsive budgeting in India. And that ignites anticipation that gender budgeting may be in focus.

“The hope is that gender responsive budgeting will have prominence in the new government’s maiden budget in its second term,” Nalini Gulati, economist at the London School of Economics’ International Growth Centre, told BloombergQuint. “This would set the tone for strong policy focus on gender issues over the next five years.”

Gender budgeting has shown positive outcomes in India, at least at the state levels. A paper published by the International Monetary Fund in 2016 found that states with gender budgeting efforts showed more progress in primary school enrollment than those without. “This result suggests that if gender budgeting is improving gender equality in education, it’s working through a means other than higher spending on education, itself,” the paper authored by Janet Stotsky and Asad Zaman said.

Schemes such as ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’, ‘Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana’ and the Mahatama Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act are some of the women-centric programmes that are part of the gender budget.

Not Just About Funds

Still, gender equality cannot be ensured just by increasing allocation of funds till mechanism to efficiently utilise those funds is incorporated.

“It’s hard to make the case for increasing the size of the gender budget without analysing how the current allocation is being spent,” Gulati said. “The budget documents have now begun to provide this information for the gender statement and this is a step in the right direction.”

Efforts need to be made to firmly institutionalise gender responsive budgeting by applying a gender lens to the entire exercise of planning, resource allocation, programme design, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation—including expenditure tracking and benefit incidence.
Nalini Gulati, Economist, International Growth Centre

Much of India’s allocation in the gender budget remains concentrated in a few sectors—health, education and rural development. And not enough efforts have gone into ensuring that these allocations are used adequately.

Take the instance of the Nirbhaya Fund that was established in 2013 in the aftermath of a gang rape in New Delhi that made the national headlines. The fund, with an initial corpus of Rs 1,000 crore, has seen allocation grow to over Rs 3,600 crore towards the safety of women.

A Parliamentary reply by Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani revealed that till 2018, only Rs 854.6 crore was released by the Centre. And states have utilised only 20 percent of that.

There are several reasons for this, according to Aasha Kapur Mehta, a professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, who was also part of the same panel as Sitharaman that pushed for adoption of gender budgeting. These include inactive gender budgeting cells, lack of officers who are sensitive to the issue and short turnaround time for submitting receipts after dis-aggregating for gender in the budget, she wrote in a prior paper.

These issues were also pointed out by the Gender Budgeting Handbook that was released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development in 2015.

“India was at the forefront of Gender Budgeting a decade and a half ago. However, over the years we slowly lost the gains we had made,” Mehta wrote in a recent column for The Hindu newspaper. “We hope that a Finance Minister who spearheaded Gender Budgeting decades ago, will make this a reality.”


Azman Usmani is a senior correspondent at BQ Prime. He ...more
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